Looking out on downtown from her second-floor office at the YMCA of Southern Arizona, Annemarie Medina could be any other person with a desk job. Except that her desk is waist high and she’s climbing on a stepping machine while she checks e-mail.
Armed with $15.75 million in stimulus funds, she and others are out to get other Pima County residents to adopt healthier lifestyles by eating better, exercising and, ultimately, shedding pounds.
“It’s not just about telling people to eat healthier and exercise more,” Medina said. “We have to make the healthy choice the easy choice, and the default choice.”
The program, Communities Putting Prevention to Work, targets obesity by promoting workplace exercise programs and healthier school lunches and lobbying for policies that encourage farmers markets and community gardens, among other things.
Leaders said obesity is a major cause for concern in Pima County and elsewhere.
“It’s a horrible, horrible crisis that we’re in, and we’re seeing that it’s really what’s driving health care costs,” Medina said.
The program, managed by Pima County and Activate Tucson, a coalition of groups working to make Tucson residents more active, is modeled after an initiative by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The groups involved are working on urban planning to accommodate residents walking to stores instead of driving, bringing healthy options to vending machines and school lunch menus and getting employers to adopt wellness programs. They’re laying plans to promote healthy restaurants and lobby for policies that encourage healthy lifestyles, such as allowing more community gardens to sell their produce.
The plans include giving schools incentives to add buffets of fresh fruits and vegetables and encouraging companies to provide healthy food options at meetings.
Funding will run out in March 2012, but coordinators said the programs and policies they hope to put in place will last much longer.
“I see things changing,” Medina said. “But I think we’ll see even more changes a lot longer down the road.”
The Goldwater Institute, an independent watchdog group promoting limited government and free enterprise, and some private citizens have said it isn’t the government’s place to use stimulus money to try to influence what people eat.
Christina Kohn, a staff attorney at the institute, said the project’s available plans are too vague to understand how the money is being used.
“It’s really just a concerted effort on behalf of the CDC to micromanage what people eat and how people go about their daily activities,” she said. “This is a time when people are losing jobs and we’re basically taking taxpayer funds and using them in order to impose a certain lifestyle.”
Project manager Donald Gates, a Pima County Health Department program coordinator, said the government is already indirectly responsible for things like school lunches, so making sure they match healthy guidelines isn’t overstepping.
The initiative has created 75 jobs in the county and the community groups involved, he said. Those groups include the University of Arizona, YMCA, United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona, The Community Food Bank and the Carondelet Health Network.
Gates said the program’s goal is to provide options so people can make healthier choices but not be pushed to do so.
“It’s a community’s responsibility to provide the opportunity to make a positive choice, but it’s the individual who gets to choose,” he said.
There’s a huge economic impact from high obesity-related health care spending, Gates said, so it was vital to take advantage of stimulus funds to improve community and fiscal health.
“It really does provide the opportunity to change Pima County to make it a better place to live, a better place to work and a more attractive place for business,” he said.
Merrill Eisenberg, a UA public health professor who helped write the grant proposal for stimulus funding, is working to change policies and encourage restaurants to highlight healthy options.
“Right now you can have a yard sale in your front lawn and sell all your junk, but you may not sell a tomato that you grew in your backyard,” she said. “We want to change those kind of restrictive zoning laws and business license laws.”
One plan still in the early stages is a project that will allow restaurants to voluntarily identify and highlight healthy items on their menus.
Eisenberg said she and others are working on criteria for what constitutes healthy items. Highlighting them will allow patrons to see that there are healthy meals to choose from among other, often more tempting, options, she said.
Restaurants will be able to send in recipes to be analyzed and learn if they qualify as healthy, or how they could be modified to be healthy. Establishments that check out will be included in a restaurant guide the team hopes to distribute in area hotels and online, an extra advertising incentive for businesses that comply.
After finishing a fast food lunch recently, Tucson resident Ben Meza, 51, said he agrees that Pima County has an obesity problem, though he doesn’t consider it extreme.
“I don’t think it’s right that they are spending so much money on trying to make people eat broccoli,” Meza said. “It is [the] taxpayers’ money and it is spent on things that you don’t really care about or you’re opposed to, but then you have no control over it.”
Teddy Thompson, a 51-year-old Tucson resident, disagreed, saying that government leaders should be leading people in the right direction. Stimulus money should be used to benefit the people, and it’s clear that obesity is a problem here, he said.
“There is a trend, I believe, nationwide for health,” Thompson said. “The government played a great part in that.”
• Pima County is one of 44 municipalities nationwide that received grants and the only only one in Arizona. - Its grant is $15.75 million. - Learn more at healthypima.org
• The University of Arizona’s Drachman Institute (College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture), College of Public Health and Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition - YMCA of Southern Arizona - Carondelet Health Network - The Community Food Bank - PRO Neighborhoods - United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona
• Food systems team - Built environment team - Health, human-services and faith-based team - Neighborhoods team - Policy team - Schools team - Worksites team